Common questions about youth and prejudice

Kevin Swick, a professor of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and Roni Leiderman, associate dean of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., offer answers to some common questions about youth and prejudice.

What are the common issues related to prejudice and tolerance that arise during the elementary and preteen years?

Leiderman: Children are very aware of belonging or not belonging to the group at this age. Peer relationships are paramount to them, and you'll either see embracing of difference or separation and discrimination coming in at this point, depending on what they've been taught in the home. These are the years when you'll either see the fruits of your labor or the negative aspects of what you did or did not do during the preschool years.

Swick: This is the time when children want to compare themselves to others - body size, appearance, ability. It's a time when they are looking to feel accepted and to be a positive part of their peer group or community.

Where does the most influence upon children of this age come from regarding the development of prejudice and bias?

Leiderman: Parents are the first and most important and influential teacher at this age. What you allow them to read, watch, see and hear layers their foundation with all sorts of information that will help form their responses to difference. If they attend a school that lacks diversity, if they watch TV shows that paint stereotypical pictures of certain groups, if they visit websites that use slurs and putdowns to describe people - all of these influences inform children's responses to other people.

In many ways, schools are more segregated today than in past decades, and residential segregation is a fact of life in many areas. How can parents foster respect for differences even when the school environment lacks diversity?

Leiderman: Parents have to make an effort to get kids involved in activities outside the school walls that will give them a different experience. You can be deliberate about the sports clubs you sign up for. Getting kids involved in the arts is a good way to expose them to people from different backgrounds, where they get to interact around something they love to do and see that we all share strengths and talents. You can send them to summer camps where they'll come across other kids from diverse backgrounds. And parents should keep in mind that elementary school is not too young for kids to volunteer. Volunteer experiences are a good way to help kids understand the value of everyone.

Swick: There are so many ways to involve children in activities where they have an opportunity to interact with people who aren't necessarily like them. Parents can arrange for children to do service through their church. They can purposely get them and their friends involved in service activities with people from different parts of the community. We cannot limit kids' exposure to diversity to just the school day.

Many believe that teaching tolerance is the job of white parents, while the job of parents of color is to prepare their children for intolerance. Are the responsibilities different for white parents vs. parents of color?

Leiderman: To believe that is to believe that prejudice and discrimination only involve race and ethnicity, when in fact, those issues are only the tip of the iceberg. It also assumes that only white parents are capable of raising children who may be guilty of prejudice, when, really, we all share that capacity. When you limit the discussion to just issues of race, you are cutting out 50 percent of the conversation.

Swick: The responsibilities run across the board for both white parents and non-white parents. All parents need to prepare kids for intolerance, and all parents need to prepare kids for being appreciative of other people. Prejudice works many different ways, and everybody has experienced this to some degree, so all parents need to be prepared to address it.

Teachers often say parents are one of the biggest challenges they face when attempting to incorporate anti-bias lessons in the classroom. Why are so many parents reluctant to allow schools to address these issues?

Leiderman: Often the reason is fear or deep-rooted experiences with discrimination. Many parents know these lessons will bring about all kinds of questions from their children about some issues they may be uncomfortable discussing. Some of the questions their children will ask might be painful to answer. This is why teachers have to work to educate families, too. This work can't be done in isolation; it requires an open dialogue among teachers and parents.

While many parents are well aware of the need to talk to elementary and preteen children about issues such as drugs, alcohol use, smoking and safe sex practices, it seems talking to kids about the dangers of prejudice is not always as high on parents' radars. Should it be?

Leiderman: Often in seminars or workshops, I ask parents, "What do you want your child to be?" I'll get one or two who say a doctor or a lawyer, but for most parents, the answer is happy. The real essence is if you want to raise children who are happy, who form quality relationships in their lives, who are successful in their careers and who are good partners and good parents, you have to discuss these issues with your kids.

Swick: These issues have to be on parents' radars. They are what's killing us. And it's a problem even bigger than drugs or alcohol. All over the world, we are killing each other because we don't know how to value each other's differences. Discussing these issues with kids has to be a priority, and the earlier the better.